Bismarck, North Dakota — A major winter storm turned into an unexpected disaster in Bismarck when ice jams blocked the Missouri River and caused flooding in the Fox Island and Southport neighborhoods. Governor John Hoeven called on the Corps of Engineers for assistance, and they began arriving Monday night, during the blizzard, along with a team from FEMA.
Governor Hoeven asked the Corps to slow the flow from Garrison Dam, about 35 miles above Bismarck on the Missouri, when the river began to rise and fill roads in the southwest part of Bismarck. By Wednesday, the Corps completely stopped water flow into the river, something that has never before happened in the 50+ year history of Garrison Dam (the largest earth-filled dam in the country). The rising waters were caused mainly by large chunks of thick ice that entered the Missouri from the flooding of two tributaries, the Heart and Knife rivers. The large chunks came together and made a large ice jam.
On Wednesday, March 25, an Army Corps of Engineers expert in ice jams, along with an expert in explosives, were set down on the ice by Black Hawk helicopters flown down by the Minot Air Base. They also dropped air boats, since the edges of the ice jam were dangerously thin. In the portions of the jam that were between 2 and 3 feet thick, the engineers drilled between 76 and 80 holes in two parallel rows down the length of the ice, and filled them with C-4 explosive matieral. Their hope was that the result would be a channel through which river water could flow downstream. The first explosion went off at about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The National Guard protected the public by maintaining a boundary 3000 feet away from the east bank of the river.
The first explosion caused some deterioration of the ice, according to National Guard General Spryncznatyk in a press conference Wednesday night. To improve the river flow, the team of engineers, helicopter pilots, and National Guard returned to the ice at around 8:00 p.m., and repeated the process, using lights set out on the ice. They exploded the C-4 at about 11:00 p.m. A third explosion is planned for this afternoon.
Meanwhile, more flooding started in other parts of the city Wednesday morning when river water caused storm drains to back up. Three trailer parks in south-central Bismarck were evacuated, and a fourth put on alert. Pumping trucks owned by the city, along with two more provided by the National Guard, started pumping Wednesday afternoon and are still hard at work. Meanwhile streets south of Expressway and west of Washington remain impassible, along with portions of University Drive, south 12th Street, and other streets in southeastern Bismarck, where streets are still flooded, although the water level has dropped over a foot in the last 24 hours. My sister was one of those evacuated from southwest Bismarck on Wednesday morning. She's staying in a hotel, but three public shelters have been set up in the northeast part of the city on higher ground. The shelters are in three large churches, and are being manned by volunteers along with the Bismarck Red Cross staff.
City engineering and public works personnel were able to get into Fox Island by foot this morning, and have been checking each home for water level, structural integrity, and the safety of electrical and gas lines. They'll be followed by a environmental team who will check those homes that had, or still have, water, and were tagged by the first teams. Residents can begin returning to Fox Island this afternoon, unless their homes are tagged. The streets are still flooded, however, so anyone returning will have to wade to their homes. Southport homes are next on the list to be checked.
Since Tuesday night, over 1.5 million sandbags have been filled by volunteers from the city, including high school and college students, along with National Guard personnel. These sandbags have been provided free of charge to home owners whose property is threatened by rising waters. People who have taken them are asked to keep them, even if the need has passed now, because more snow is on the way and the amounts and effects of that precipitation are still unclear. There is also a large ice jam north of the city, near DoubleDitch, which may break on its own, causing a large amount of water to move quickly into the Bismarck area. The city is keeping over 50,000 sandbags in its shop building, in case they are needed if more storm drains start to back up.
It's possible that ultimately these sandbags will be sent to Fargo or Grand Forks, where the Red River is threatening to crest at a level higher than that of the hundred year flood in 1997. National Guard and FEMA personnel, along with volunteers, including some students from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, have been sandbagging on top of the Fargo dikes. Over 1.3 million sandbags have been placed. In Grand Forks, the river is high enough that only one bridge remains open between Grand Forks, ND, and East Grand Forks in Minnesota. The Red River is expected to crest this weekend in Fargo, although weather could cause a change in the estimated time; Grand Forks residents can expect the Red to crest there sometime next week.
It's not just people who are suffering. In the Linton area, where most of the town has been evacuated, it's calving time on the surrounding ranches. Livestock loss estimates vary, but are probably over 100 cattle, and at least that many calves. Some hope was given to ranchers when the Black Hawks inspecting the ice reported seeing some cattle on ice in the river, but whether or not they can be rescued isn't known.
President Obama has declared North Dakota a disaster area. City and state governments still have no estimate of the cost of the damage caused by snow and flooding so far; their emphasis is on the safety of residents of the state. Governor Hoeven stated in a press conference at 11:00 a.m. this morning that it could be weeks before the full extent of the damage, and its cost, is known, but he believes it is enough that the federal relief package will include help for individuals who have lost their homes or suffered severe damage and financial loss.
North Dakotans are expressing gratitude for all the help from the National Guard, many of whom spent a 24-hour stretch filling sandbags, often with bare hands; the Corps of Engineers ice experts, explosive experts, and the men who dared to walk on the ice in the dark; the personnel from the Minot Air Base who came down to do "something they've never done before" together with the Corps; the 25 person team from FEMA, and most of all for our neighbors, because everyone is to be pitching in to help in whatever way they can.
(Sources: http://www.bismarck.org/city_departments/department/news_detail.asp?dID=4&ID=1175 , http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=47798 , 3/26/09 press conference with Bismarck & Mandan mayors, Congressman Earl Pomeroy, National Guard General Spryncznatyk, and City Commissioner Connie Spryncznatyk I attended at 11:00 a.m. today)